Werbe on Oksman, '"How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs'

Tahneer Oksman
Charlotte F. Werbe

Tahneer Oksman. "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 296 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-17275-2.

Reviewed by Charlotte F. Werbe (Princeton University) Published on H-Judaic (April, 2018) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52141

As Tahneer Oksman remarks in “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (2016), women’s autobiographical projects tend to be read as transparent renderings rather than performative reconstructions of their identity. Oksman analyzes the graphic memoirs of seven contemporary artists—Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Vanessa Davis, Miss Lasko-Gross, Lauren Weinstein, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Libicki, and Liana Finck—in order to understand how Jewish American female identity is rejected, redefined, and reasserted. “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” sheds light on some of the strategies these artists use to reconceptualize and represent their ever-changing identities.

In her introduction, Oksman coins the term dis-affiliation, defined as the way in which these artists perceive their relationship to their communities. Dis-affiliation emphasizes how traditional notions of linearity and rootedness are reframed by these memoirists. Indeed, Oksman’s project seeks to map out how identity is shaped by the comics page and, in particular, how traditional notions of identity and classic comics convention are challenged in these graphic memoirs.

From the outset of the first chapter, which focuses on Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s autobiographical projects, in particular Need More Love (2007), Oksman displays her dexterous approach to comics. Oksman argues that a “variety of notions of self” (p. 29) emerges through Kominsky-Crumb’s subversion of seriality—the spatial and temporal movement that produces meaning in the sequence and the page of comics. For example, Kominsky-Crumb consistently juxtaposes disparate drawings of herself. Instead of concealing the inevitable ruptures that are produced at the moment of self-representation, she exposes how identity is constantly re-envisioned by herself and by others.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 examine the visual strategies artists employ to redefine their plural identities. Oksman explores how the design of the page in the works of Vanessa Davis, Miss Lasko-Gross, Lauren Weinstein, Sarah Glidden, and Miriam Libicki reinforces “the notions that impressions of past and experiences are always connected to, and somehow based in, previous understanding and reflections—a ‘spiral’ integration of past into present” (p. 90). As she emphasizes, instabilities abound in all of these artists’ projects. Davis’s quasi-diary Spaniel Rage (2005) is marked by fluid notions of genre, while the uncertainties of adolescence define Lasko-Gross’s and Weinstein’s autobiographical works.[1] Chapter 4 tackles the fraught subject of national identity and diaspora in Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in Sixty Days or Less (2010) and Libicki’s jobnik! (2008) by investigating how notions of belonging are confronted. As Oksman shows, Glidden and Libicki ironically employ an art typically associated with reduction to challenge assumptions and stereotypes that are frequently made about Israel. One way that Glidden does this, for example, is by including several characters, each with their own unique Jewish identity, as represented by word bubbles and other visual details.

The disjunction between the way identity is perceived and the way it is experienced lies at the heart of “How Comes Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” Concluding with a reading of Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) neatly captures the process through which selfhood comes to be constructed. In these final pages, Oksman suggests that notions of translation can offer new ways of envisioning this process. Her case study of a Bintel Brief highlights the multidirectional process through which past and present selves, in their constitution and representation, enact simultaneous influences on one another.

How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” is an apt title given its focus on the transformations, transitions, and translations of identity in the graphic memoirs that Oksman has chosen to examine. This volume is unique in its exploration of how the medium itself comes to play an important role in determining how identity emerges. At the intersection of many fields, including literary, gender, and comics theory, “How Comes Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” delicately balances a variety of approaches. It is rare to find a text that so smoothly bridges close reading with contextualized analysis. Although the book would have benefited from a more sustained discussion of the notion of translation as it applies to the texts covered in the volume, it is a highly recommended read for all those looking to learn more about graphic memoirs, women’s writing, and Jewish American identity.


[1]. Miss Lasko-Gross, Escape from “Special,” (Seattle: Fantagraphic, 2006); Lauren Weinstein, Girl Stories (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).

Citation: Charlotte F. Werbe. Review of Oksman, Tahneer, "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52141

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.